• Oct 11, 1881
    (b.) -
    Sep 30, 1953


An English mathematician, physicist, meteorologist, psychologist and pacifist who pioneered modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting, and the application of similar techniques to studying the causes of wars and how to prevent them. He is also noted for his pioneering work on fractals and a method for solving a system of linear equations known as modified Richardson iteration. Images of fractals can be created using fractal-generating software. Images produced by such software are normally referred to as being fractals even if they do not have the necessary characteristics, such as when it is possible to zoom into a region of the fractal that does not exhibit any fractal properties. Also, these may include calculation or display artifacts which are not characteristics of true fractals. In 1926, he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. He was the youngest of seven children in a prosperous Quaker family; his father running a successful tanning and leather manufacturing business. At age 12 he was sent to a Quaker boarding school, Bootham in York, where he received an excellent education in science, which stimulated an active interest in natural history. In 1898 he went on to Durham College of Science (a college of Durham University) where he took courses in mathematical physics, chemistry, botany, and zoology. Two years later, he gained a scholarship to King's College, Cambridge, where he graduated with first-class honors in the natural sciences tripos in 1903. At age 47 he received a Doctorate in Mathematical Psychology from the University of London. His working life reflected his eclectic interests. Among other endeavors, he was the Head of the Physics Department at Westminster Training College (1920–1929) and Principal of Paisley Technical College, now part of the University of the West of Scotland (1929–1940). His interest in meteorology led him to propose a scheme for weather forecasting by solution of differential equations, the method used today, though when he published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922, suitable fast computing was unavailable. He described his ideas thus: “After so much hard reasoning, may one play with a fantasy? Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north Polar Regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the Antarctic in the pit.” A myriad of computers are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little "night signs" display the instantaneous values so that neighboring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map.” He went to explain this in detail ending with, “In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence and administrative offices. Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely.” (The word computers is used here in its original sense - people who did computations, not machines. Calculator also referred to people at this time.) When he received news of the first weather forecast by the first modern computer, ENIAC, in 1950, he responded that the results were an "enormous scientific advance." The first calculations for a 24 hour forecast took ENIAC nearly 24 hours to produce. He was also interested in atmospheric turbulence and performed many terrestrial experiments. The Richardson number, a dimensionless parameter in the theory of turbulence is named after him. He famously summarized the field in rhyming verse in Weather Prediction by Numerical Process (p 66): “Big whirls have little whirls that feed on their velocity, and little whirls have lesser whirls and so on to viscosity.” One of his most celebrated achievements is his attempt in hind sight to forecast the weather during a single day — 20 May 1910 — by direct computation. At the time, meteorologists carried out forecasts principally by looking for similar weather patterns from past records, and then extrapolating forward. He attempted to use a mathematical model of the principal features of the atmosphere, and use data taken at a specific time (7 AM) to calculate the weather six hours later Ab initio. As Lynch makes clear, this forecast failed dramatically, predicting a huge 145 hectopascals (4.3 inHg) rise in pressure over six hours when the pressure actually stayed more or less static. However, detailed analysis by Lynch has shown that the cause was a failure to apply smoothing techniques to the data, which rule out unphysical surges in pressure. When these are applied, the forecast turns out to be essentially accurate — a remarkable achievement considering the calculations were done by hand, and while he was serving with the Quaker ambulance unit in northern France. While studying the causes of war between two countries, he decided to search for a relation between the probability of two countries going to war and the length of their common border. While collecting data, he realised that there was considerable variation in the various gazetted lengths of international borders. For example, that between Spain and Portugal was variously quoted as 987 or 1214 km while that between the Netherlands and Belgium as 380 or 449 km. As part of his research, he investigated how the measured length of a border changes as the unit of measurement is changed. He published empirical statistics which led to a conjectured relationship. This research was quoted by mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot in his 1967 paper How Long Is the Coast of Britain? At the time, his research was ignored by the scientific community. Today, it is seen as one element in the birth of the modern study of fractals. Since 1997, the Lewis Fry Richardson Medal has been awarded by the European Geosciences Union for "exceptional contributions to nonlinear geophysics in general" (by EGS until 2003 and by EGU by 2004).
  • Date of Birth:

    Oct 11, 1881
  • Date of Death:

    Sep 30, 1953
  • Gender:

  • Noted For:

    Known for his pioneering work on fractals and a method for solving a system of linear equations
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